Research 101: Part 1

Defining and funding the research

In this series, Research 101, we are taking you behind the scenes of a research project at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), from start to finish.

Look behind every safety product invention, government occupational health and safety regulation or process improvement, and you will likely find research.

Research provides the facts about an occupational health and safety issue. It can help decision-makers with background information on a specific topic or help to fill in the gaps around an important health and safety question.

Although conducting research can be a time-consuming process, its rewards are endless: lives are saved, costs are decreased and productivity is enhanced.

Yet, how is research done? In particular, how do Institute for Work & Health (IWH) scientists carry out research?

How research begins

Let’s start at the beginning: a question. Research often begins with a simple question or a curiosity about an issue.

Before any study begins, a researcher needs an idea. As a researcher, you think of questions that you want the answer to all of the time. Sometimes you notice a trend in, say, lost-time claims data and you wonder why it is occurring. Other times, ideas and questions may come up during discussions with work colleagues and other people you interact with, says IWH Scientist Dr. Peter Smith.

Back in 2006, Smith and other Institute colleagues noticed that, over a 14-year period, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) lost-time claims had decreased by more than 40 per cent. Yet over the same time period, no-lost-time claim rates declined by only four per cent. A no-lost-time claim is one in which a worker is injured and requires health care but does not take time off of work other than on the day of the injury.

This is surprising because if you consider the amount of prevention efforts that are carried out by the occupational health and safety community, the drop in no-lost-time claims should have been similar to the drop in lost-time claims, Smith notes.

So now Smith has a question he wants to answer: how do no-lost-time claims compare with lost-time claims? To understand the question better, a research team will compare trends in no-lost-time claims among different sub-groups such as by gender, industry or age to see if there are differences.

Additionally, Smith and his colleagues are interested in finding out why the health-care costs associated with no-lost-time claims (from $13.8 million in 1991 to more than $20 million in 2000) has increased so substantially. Finally, the research team wants to examine the types of injuries behind no-lost time claims and whether they have changed over time. Although this type of information is routinely collected for lost-time claims, it is not recorded for no-lost-time claims.

Who pays?

What’s next? Funding. As the principal investigator, Smith needs to determine where to look for project funding. Several public agencies – such as the WSIB and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – offer grants. These grants do not pay for the investigators’ time, but they do pay to hire analysts to examine the data and coders to collect information from the claim reports.

Smith thinks that the results from this research will be of the most interest to the WSIB and decides to submit a grant to the WSIB Research Advisory Council (RAC). Each February, the RAC receives grant applications from prospective researchers. Since 1999, the RAC has provided more than $21.5 million to fund more than 150 different OHS research projects.

Submitting the grant

Upwards of 175 hours are spent by the researchers, support staff, library services and the knowledge transfer and exchange team in preparing a grant submission. Basically, we need to convince the members of the WSIB RAC that this is a project worth funding. This council has researchers, employers, workers and health and safety association representatives. They receive more and more submissions each year, so the question has to be relevant and the way to answer it has to be scientifically sound, says Smith.

Smith begins to conduct preliminary work on the grant in October 2006. This involves searching the literature to see what research has been done on no-lost-time claims. He also determines the study’s objectives, methods and how the data are to be analyzed, and most importantly if the work can be done. The research team has to make sure it can get the right information to answer the question.

Additionally, as the research team needs to be finalized, it should include the appropriate mix of skills and knowledge. As this project involves WSIB data, a biostatistician is an important part of the team. Other members include database experts and other researchers with expertise in data analysis, as well as a worker with experience in coding claims. This preliminary work takes a solid six to eight weeks to complete, notes Smith.

In December of 2006 the grant-writing process begins. With a RAC grant, very precise page limits, font type and submission length are specified. Failing to keep within the guidelines could result in the grant not even being sent out for review.

Sometimes the grant-writing process presents challenges. For this grant, Smith receives last-minute verification— on the day the grant is to be submitted — that some of the data he needs will be available. Four weeks leading up to the grant submission, I always question whether we’re going to make the deadline or not, but usually it all comes together, he notes.

The grant submission tips the scales at 49 pages and includes a detailed budget request (Smith is requesting more than $200,000 over two years), a research work plan, and team members’ bios. It is submitted to the RAC on time. Now, the research team waits to hear back from the Council to see if the project will be funded.

Good news comes to Smith in early June of 2007. The WSIB RAC has agreed to fund Smith’s proposal with a budget of $204,650.

In Part 2: The research team faces some challenges that may jeopardize the project.

Source: At Work, Issue 54, Fall 2008: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto